More than 60,000 illegal children below the age of 18 will cross the border this year unaccompanied by an adult, and the government thinks that number is likely to double next year.
The flood of children from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and other Central American nations is putting a tremendous strain on government resources. Reuters reports that not only is there simply no room to house the children, but the budget problem makes it difficult to adequately care for them. It costs the U.S. $252 a day to care for each child and the total cost this year could reach $868 million. That number is expected to climb to $2 billion next year.
The tenfold increase in illegal minors crossing the border alone since 2011 is partly the result of relaxed deportation policies of the Obama administration. But it is also true that many of these children are escaping poverty, abuse, and rampant violence in their home countries.
The shortage of housing for these children, some as young as 3, has already become so acute that an emergency shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, has been opened and can accommodate 1,000 of them, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in an interview with Reuters.
The issue is an added source of tension between Democrats and Republicans, who disagree on how to rewrite immigration laws. With comprehensive legislation stalled, President Barack Obama is looking at small, administrative steps he could take, which might be announced this summer. No details have been outlined but immigration groups are pressing him to take steps to keep families with children together.
The minors flooding over the border are often teenagers leaving behind poverty or violence in Mexico and other parts of Central America such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They are sometimes seeking to reunite with a parent who is already in the United States, also without documentation.
“This is a humanitarian crisis and it requires a humanitarian response,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski said in an interview. The Maryland Democrat, a former social worker, has likened the flood of unaccompanied children to the “boat people” of past exodus movements.
Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on Mikulski’s committee, said, “The need is there, you know the humanitarian aspect of it, but we’re challenged on money.”
Immigration groups lobbying for comprehensive reform argue that children are being hit hardest by the political deadlock.
With an even bigger funding challenge looming for 2015, Mikulski worries corners might be cut. She said children could end up being placed in federal holding cells meant only for adults and that funds might have to be shifted from other programs, such as refugee aid, to help cover the $252-per-day cost of detaining a child.
Mark Lagon, who coordinated the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to combat human trafficking, tied the sharp increase in unaccompanied minors to both U.S. economic factors and escalating violence in Central America.
He noted that there was a decrease in migration to the United States in the period 2008-2010 that reflected the U.S. economic downturn, and that has been reversed.
What’s to be done? I have some ideas on the next page.
The immediate need must be met — that much is clear. But beyond feeding and housing these children, what’s the long-term solution? Better border security only means we catch more of them. And these kids are in extreme danger of being exploited by coyotes and human traffickers, being sold for slave labor or worse.
This is a regional problem that demands a regional response. The countries of origin for these children must do a better job of protecting them. At the very least, we should insist these countries should either agree to protect the kids when we return them or contribute to their care. Doing nothing should not be an option.
If most of these countries complain about the U.S. being “world policeman,” neither should we be “world nanny.”